I met Yves at the funeral of a friend six years ago. He was the first self-identified hermit I’d ever come across. (Most solitary people do not label themselves as such.) He was affiliated with the monastery, Saint-Benoît de Nursie of Montréal, Canada. I’m glad I met him. It’s too bad the nature of the social gathering was not conducive to the sort of in depth conversation I like to have with contemplatives.
One of the first qualities of Yves I noticed was that he didn’t fit the popular stereotype of how we think hermits behave. He was quite gregarious and cheerful. His overall aura could be described with the antique word “mirth”. Although he was Roman Catholic by faith, he more closely resembled the Dalai Lama in his behavior.
Yves said he would have spent most of his life in a cave, except that he couldn’t locate any vacant caves for rent around Montréal. Instead, he lived a solitary life with other men living their own solitary lives in the monastery. Yves said that becoming a hermit was not a struggle to him at all. He confessed that he’d been typecast as a loner ever since boyhood. He said he just happened to fall in with the right crowd who allowed him to be himself.
Yves told me that being a hermit is nothing special. Most of them are naturally disposed to be that way. There is usually a strong urge to be alone to explore one’s inner nature and become more in tune with one’s heart and whatever the person’s concept of God may be. Renunciation of preconceptions and opinions came easily to Yves, because he could see the superficiality of such concepts. He said that a person doesn’t need to be Catholic to be a hermit. Hermits exist as believers and non-believers, alike.
People who actively choose a solitary lifestyle or those who think of themselves as hermits are the underdogs of society. In our world of hyper-social networking, many experts would have us believe that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with wanting to live apart from others. This assessment is a far cry from the truth.
People who embrace a solitary lifestyle simply dislike most of the distractions and complexity of society. If it is possible, a hermit would rather live away from civilization in silence. Hermits are often found in urban settings. They may live happily alone in an apartment, where they are free to focus on the ebb and flow of life. Surrounded by the sounds of a city, silence is metaphorical, not actual. The solitary seeker lives beyond the egotistical yearnings of socialites. She finds contentment in her solitary wanderings through the crowded streets and freeways of a metropolis.
Today’s hermit can embody any of several lifestyle differentiations. The self-imposed “exile” allows the mind to connect with the “deeper” aspects of life that are incomprehensible to the average citizen. The hermit, may simply wish to be her/himself, or to gain some version of “spiritual” enlightenment.
You might know a musician or artist who goes into seclusion for days or weeks at a time. When she emerges from solitude, there might be the manifestation of songs, writings, or visual art. What would appear to be “quiet time”, is actually a busy, living time in the mind of a creative hermit. As they indulge in a late-night drive in the country, a long walk in nature, or a retreat to their apartments, their creative juices are flowing and mixing together. When the situation is perfect, an epiphany flashes into consciousness. Physical manifestation ensues.
There are other folks who just want to be left alone. They may experience an overarching impatience with people. They’re sensitive to the violation of their personal space and peace being disturbed. When their fellow humans express misunderstandings of the needs of the hermit, the solitary soul will seem to be grouchy and anti-social.
These days, a person must be careful in his hermitage. Neighbors, or worse yet, law officers might misinterpret solitude for sullen anti-social behavior. The NSA and police may mistake a hermit for a terrorist. There is a world of difference between the two. The hermit aims to improve his own life and often the lives of others in positive, peaceful ways. The terrorist is deluded into thinking that killing and destruction improve society.
The hermit should be left alone. He is not being anti-social, he’s more often pro-social. In his retreat from the hustle and hype of the modern world, he only wants to turn inward to think, meditate, and feel the richness and fullness of life. Through her or his example, the hermit might influence others to enjoy the luxury of the expansion of space and time that can unlock the riches of inner life and joy.
Anyone can be a hermit for a day or a lifetime. There are no special qualifications nor talent required. Anybody can choose to indulge in solitude instead of activating the fear of aloneness. Instead of feeling abandoned and let down by the expectations of other people or social pressures, the hermit is happy to enjoy being himself. The realization comes that it’s futile to try too hard to please others. It’s healthier to step back to accept the world as it is and yourself as you are.
What is most surprising to most people, is the discovery that living a solitary life can be the most adventurous lifestyle of all, if that is what the hermit wants. Allowing one’s “inner hermit” to shine through, can eventually enable more positive interactions with society.
I was lucky to get a glimpse of the well-balanced life of a hermit when I met Yves during that auspicious afternoon at a funeral celebration of life.
Happy National Hermit Day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness stumbled across a pithy quote from Alan Watts. “…I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”